Miles Brown and Cat Hope interviewed by Andrew Ford on ABC Radio National Music Show
It’s the instrument you play without needing to touch; the eerie sound on countless sci-fi soundtracks; and the distinctive wail loved by rock bands and avant garde composers. Invented by a young Russian physicist in 1920 after the outbreak of the Russian Civil War, the theremin is still alive and well and part of the 2020 music scene. Cat Hope, Professor of Music and Head of Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University in Melbourne, and Miles Brown, Australia’s leading proponent of the theremin, reveal the strange story of one of the world’s most unusual electronic instruments.
Miles Brown interviewed by Peter Theremin for THEREMIN TIMES
PT: What prompted you to play theremin?
When I was a teenager I was becoming interested in analogue synthesiser music, and mentioned it to my father who was an electrical engineer. He told me that there was an instrument that predated the synthesiser, that you played without touching, and that he had the plans to build one from an old 1970s electronics magazine. I was super intrigued, so we built a theremin together (actually he did most of it and I kind of soldered a few things and asked a lot of questions).
So I started with this homemade theremin made out of cake tins, which I used for noisey solos in my first rock band. I was predominantly an electric bass player at the time, but I became fascinated by the magic of the theremin and tried to find out as much as I could. This was 1996 in Hobart, Tasmania, the early days of the Internet, and there wasn’t much information around. I spent a lot of time in the computer lab at university trying find out what I could.
Someone had given me a copy of Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar for my birthday, which I didn’t really like. I had a friend with very eclectic taste in music, and he had a copy of the Ed Wood soundtrack featuring Lydia Kavina on theremin, so I swapped with him. This was the first theremin music I owned, and tried to play along with it. I sounded terrible but I was hooked.
A few years later I had an accident and damaged my left hand, which really messed with my ability to play bass, so I decided to put all my energy into the theremin from that point on. It was actually the best thing that could have happened, as over the years the theremin has taken me through so many amazing doors and allowed me to play with so many incredible people – I don’t think I would have been able to do any of this playing bass in a rock band. Years later I ended up travelling to the UK to study with Lydia Kavina. As I was walking up the stairs for my first lesson I thought back to 17-year-old me trying to jam along with that Ed Wood CD in my parents’ lounge room, and was suitably freaked out / excited.
What were your first feelings when you heard the sounds of theremin and where did it happen?
After my Dad told me about the instrument we went online and found some audio examples. I was utterly enthralled and also surprised that the sound was immediately so familiar – like I had always known and loved it. As I did more research I realised I would have heard it on early sci-fi and horror movie soundtracks (I was a huge fan of these films) and attributed it to the almost subconscious way that audiences absorb screen music, but these days I think the theremin sounds familiar because it is the sound of a human’s body, detected electronically. I love the theremin because it is such a direct route to feeling through music.
What is your musical philosophy and what place it occupies a theremin?
My musical philosophy as a composer is to be a channel for ideas and feelings to flow through and to communicate those ideas to others. I’m a firm believer that everybody in the world who has ever touched a musical instrument is a musician, regardless of their experience, and that the part an adult’s musicality that creates good music is the same part that a child uses when experimenting with the keys on a piano. Training and musical knowledge are extremely valuable and supportive to this creative cause, but it is that childlike playtime that generates the magic.
For me the theremin is so important because it has comparatively little in terms of canon and precedent. Instrumental music has the capacity to communicate emotional content regardless of language barriers and rawness and fragility of the theremin allows for super subtle nuances of feeling to be relayed. My mission is to further the tradition of the theremin as a lead instrument in a range of original musical contexts. I feel that writing for the theremin is vital to the development of its culture and musical legacy.
Prospects for theremin and its place in modern music space – how you see them? For what qualities you value this tool?
For me the theremin is wonderful because it is so unusual. In a contemporary musical world where people compete so much to keep up with a status quo, it is fantastic to realise how rewarding it is to venture out into uncharted territory. Striving toward adequacy is boring, and everyone else is doing that anyway. The theremin is unique in that it takes so much effort to master, and there are so few of us trying to play it in a professional context.
So much is still being worked out about where the instrument will sit in the modern musical space, and for me it is very exciting that we can all be involved in these early evolutionary stages of theremin culture. I think the short answer is – it can work in whatever context you place it. I have spent years touring with the instrument playing with super loud rock bands and experimental acts, and that has given me a lot of experience with what does and doesn’t work (both musically and technically) in those environments. Other players work in the fields of jazz and classical, and they have amazing knowledge of how the instrument works in those worlds. In the same way that every thereminist’s body is different and hence their strategies of playing can vary, so too our experiences seem to be wildly different. Between all of us I think we will be able to pool this information into a knowledge base that will make things easier for future musicians entering the theremin field (pardon the pun).
Which manufacturer of theremin do you prefer?
Moog forever. My Etherwave Pro is a wonderful beast and has been with my all around the world through a lot of crazy times. I also love the T-Vox Tour, and I hope one day to be able to own one. They are so rare. It has such a beautiful tone and a slightly different set of playing parameters, which I really love. I’m sure there are great new theremin builders emerging too and I hope they maintain their wonderful efforts – we need more professional grade theremins in the world!
What you can recommend for beginners thereminists, or those who are just going to start their way of thereminist?
My advice is to buy Carolina Eyck’s wonderful instructional book, play along with your favourite records and have patience! The theremin is a really difficult instrument to master but it is not impossible. So many of the barriers that beginning players encounter are psychological. All music is easy, if you practice. Enjoy the wild and seemingly unpredictable nature of the instrument and realise that your job is to meld with this strangeness and find the place in your mind where it starts to make sense. If possible, it is an excellent idea to take lessons with established teachers in real life (or over Skype). Ask lots of questions and be prepared for a range of unusual and challenging answers. Think about archery – it seems impossible to hit that bull’s-eye but people do it all the time. Magic takes practice!
Miles Brown interviewed by Alif Thomas Dodds for Hands Tied Music
ATD: What really motivated me to ask all these questions was, I think, what most people know you for – your inclusion of the theremin as your primary instrument. I even saw you on telly playing one! It is a truly unique instrument unlike any other, and I’ve always wanted to play one myself.
Give me a “theremin for dummies” if you were to teach me the basics of the instrument.
The theremin an electronic instrument which is is basically a set of antennae that detects and reproduces the motion of your body (or whoever is the closest). So, to learn the theremin is really to learn how to control your body with quite a high level of precision, and to listen to the sound you make in a slightly different way than is needed for other instruments. It’s kind of magical, and that’s why I became enamoured with it initially. To play theremin well you kind of have to drop into a slightly meditative state, to concentrate on your body and the music and the sound of the theremin equally. This is why it’s hard to play but also why it’s so mysterious and rewarding.
A lot of your work leans towards gothic/electronic tendencies; is this out of those associations the popular imagination has connecting theremins and their sound to horror movies, science fiction and the like? The latter I think is obvious for anyone aware of your most recent record!
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t personally interested in goth and electronic music. However it’s not necessarily been my intention to play to type as a thereminist. The association that the instrument carries due to its early use in horror and sci-fi music is pretty hard to shake, though, and a lot of the opportunities that come along seem to naturally involve this kind of world. I recently saw Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance) give an absolutely inspirational talk at the Melbourne Recital Centre (I’m a massive fan of her as a performer and composer) and she spoke about how they never saw themselves as “goth” even though the goth community totally embraced them. That really resonated with me.
I’m more interested in taking the theremin to places it hasn’t already been than reasserting its place as a novelty / sci-fi FX device. Sometimes it is necessary to wrap an unfamiliar idea in something familiar in order to reach your desired goal. The last Night Terrors album, Pavor Nocturnus, was a good example of this. On the surface it may seem like a horror-disco, Halloween style album, but it also includes some of our most gentle and thoughtfully composed theremin pieces. So it was kind of like a Trojan Horse kind of idea – here’s your horror disco spooky good times, and BAM here’s the theremin doing something totally different. Having said all that, I do find it very hard to resist a good pun – when a reviewer described my solo set at Dark Mofo as “gothic techno” it didn’t take long for Séance Fiction to spring to mind as an apt album title.
What was the impetus for you to pick up, out of any instrument, theremin, as opposed to a piano or synth?
I was originally a bass player, and a total metalhead. When I was 16 or so I started to get into more avant-garde music, as well as a lot of synth stuff. My dad, who is an electrical engineer, told me he had the plans to build an electronic instrument which was the precursor to the analogue synthesiser, so we built one. I then started researching the theremin and discovered the amazing theremin diva Clara Rockmore, and I was hooked.
I know you studied under Lydia Kavina, noted thereminist and protege of Leon Theremin himself for whom the instrument is named after. You also teach yourself. Do you find, because of the instruments’ unique controls, tuition of the theremin is especially difficult? Or especially fun?
Yes, studying with Lydia was hugely influential for me as a musician and as a person. To meet another thereminist, let alone the best in the world, and have access to her wealth of knowledge, was almost overwhelming for a self-taught player like me. I was also lucky enough to attend a theremin conference in Germany and meet a lot of other thereminists from around the world such as Carolina Eyck, Barbara Bucholz and Randy George. The main thing I learnt was that playing the theremin is mainly a psychological skill. Learning what to do with your hands and body is important, but getting out of your own way mentally is really the biggest hurdle. When I teach people now it’s amazing how quickly they can improve if time is spent working on the mental side of playing the instrument. I love teaching because it reinforces all the things I know but never have to actually verbalise, and it actually improves my own playing too. Plus, showing someone that it’s possible to do something that seems impossible is always super fun.
Any advice for kids wanting to pick up a weirdo instrument but feeling like they’ll never ‘master’ it?
I was a total hack thereminist until I was 27. I was still a rather bad player until I was 30. People say all kinds of things like “you need perfect pitch to play theremin” (untrue) and “you need to start early to truly master something” (bullshit). As with anything, it’s all about time on the field. You get better the more you do something. Having a naturally predisposition toward something helps, but even within that, there’s always work to be done.
I actually saw an interesting interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger recently where he was talking about his numerous life achievements, and he said that his main rule is to focus his work on the parts of his practice that he isn’t good at yet, rather than the parts you already have down. He was using the metaphor of body building but I think it applies to anything. People will also tell you you shouldn’t do something if you’re on the path to something really great. It’s almost like a compass you can follow. If people start telling you that you can’t do something, you should work even harder at it, because you’re probably just around the corner from a real revelation. People can instinctively tell that, and it scares some of them. If everyone suddenly starting doing amazing things it would be a real pain for all those who have given up on their own creative ideas!
Australian culture is predominantly geared towards discouraging any deviation from the norm, so if you happen to be an artist with experimental / outsider ideas, you really have to steel yourself and recognise the lay of the land, then soldier forward with even greater tenacity toward your goal.
I was made aware of your work first in Heirs, and then as part of your Night Terrors band. Of which two groups do you enjoy playing in the most?
Interesting question. I have played in The Night Terrors for 16 years, and it’s the one band where I get to do all my favourite things: play theremin, play synth and play really heavy bass guitar. I suppose that band is my first love – as it is a specially created environment for the theremin to act as a lead instrument in an electronic rock band. All the people who have played in Night Terrors over the years (recent members include Damian Coward of Kollaps as well as Sarah Lim) have been amazing players and it’s been a great adventure playground of musical ideas.
Having said that, I LOVED playing in Heirs because it wasn’t my band – I was a guest musician who was invited to collaborate with an already existing act who were so amazing. Night Terrors had toured with Heirs across Europe and we were labelmates on EXO Records in Australia. We were quite in awe of Heirs, they were so refined as a live act and conceptually strong as an art project. It was a huge honour to be able to step in and participate in that. I also loved just being able to play theremin as a reactive process, to find parts that worked with their already huge and dense sound was a great challenge. Also the were just so bleak and industrial, a great example of how much commitment is required to sell an idea like that convincingly.
Who are the other artists in Melbourne or internationally you think are doing new/interesting things for experimental music. I know the label you are part of It Records features real cutting edge acts such as Habits.
It Records is certainly a wonderful hub of activity for people with less mainstream musical tastes. One of the huge benefits of being involved with that collective is we all encourage each-other onward and inspire each-other to do better. Instead of competing to be more popular or striving toward adequacy, you can compete to be more original, more excellent, more individual. A peer group is so vital for great ideas to flourish, and in 2016 there’s no reason why all kinds of artistic expression shouldn’t find an audience and survive in Australia.
So much music that succeeds right now does so because it’s just feel good fun time music – the perfect soundtrack for privileged white people to get drunk with their mates to, and totally shut out the rest of the community. Considering the cultural anxiety that is pulling at all angles of the Australian psyche right now – from the very top of government all the way to the most marginalised minority – it’s high time that people start turning their attention to art and ideas that have more substance. Stormy cultural times should result in excellent art. It’s no longer good enough to make art about nothing – that’s actually super insulting to everyone.